I am on my third round through The Fellowship of the Ring (following my fourth through The Hobbit, a journey that shall conclude with my first through the Appendices of The Return of the King). The hobbits have just been freed from the Barrow-wights by Tom Bombadil.
When you look at the saga* of the War of the Ring and the journey of the Hobbits to the Cracks of Doom and the enthroning of Aragorn as King of Gondor, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights seem to be bits of adventure that are unrelated to the great climax, to the journey’s end.
However, I think this is to misunderstand Tolkien’s great novel.
Tom Bombadil shows us many things of the mythological world created by Prof. Tolkien. He is merry, even in dark times. He sings almost incessantly, and even his prose is rhythmic (say it out loud to see). Tom Bombadil is almost a force of Nature, he is Master, he can sing Old Man Willow and Barrow-wights into submission. He demonstrates clearly the great age of the world, being Eldest, as one who has witnessed kingdoms rise and fall, the forest dominate and shrink. He is part of the world itself.
Since Tom Bombadil is almost an embodiment of Earth, being a sort of earth-sprite or something, we know from this early stage in the book that the Dark Lord Sauron does not, nay cannot, have the last say. For Sauron is not of the weft and warp of the world. And the world is a resilient entity that survived Sauron’s first rising and will withstand him again, e’en if the Men die, the Elves leave, and Hobbiton is overrun. Old Man Willow will grow on. The rivers will flow. The dirt, clay, stone will still be there.
And how dare I claim this? Tom Bombadil is untouched by the Ring. He takes the Ring in hand and laughs his merry laugh, plays magic tricks with it, tosses it in the air, and even slips it on his finger — and does not disappear. It is almost as though the Dark Lord has no power over Tom Bombadil. He will never overcome this jolly, yellow-booted fellow, husband of Goldberry and Master of the Old Forest. Tom Bombadil’s merry, singing power is beyond the reach of Sauron. Not even Gandalf the Grey could claim so much.
And so we see so much hope rolled into one strange idiosyncratic scene that seems almost disconnected from the world of Ringwraiths, the flaming Eye, Saruman’s descent, Palantiri, Lothlorien, the Kings of Gondor.
The Barrow-wights, on the other hand, are a reminder that danger and evil are not all banded together on the side of the Dark Lord. We saw danger already in the Old Forest, especially in the hobbit-eating Old Man Willow. Here we see beings of incredible age, the Wights (wight is one of the Old English words for person). They were kings once, long ago, and all that remains of their culture are their barrows and standing stones. And their own ghost-like existence.
They prey on travellers who come too close. So does Shelob, who is in no one’s employ but her own. So will Saruman, who seeks the Ring for his own selfish ends. In The Hobbit, we saw that this was true of the Spiders and Elves of Mirkwood, even of the King Under the Mountain.
Finally, as Tom Bombadil shows the great antiquity of the world inhabited by Hobbits, Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Goblins, so the Barrow-wights show us the antiquity of the cultures. Middle-Earth is old and long-inhabited. The Barrow-wights are of an essentially forgotten culture, as the Mycenaeans who built the Cyclopaean Walls were to the Classical Greeks. Tolkien’s mythology strides across a grand stage, a vast land inhabited by many with a long history.
Were we to lose such incidents as Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights, we would lose the richness of the tapestry of Middle-Earth, and we would lose the richness of the danger rising up in its Southeast, and we would lose the complexity of a plot driven by more than one force.
*I feel that The Lord of the Rings as a novel qualifies as a false saga, as some novels qualify as false journals or autobiographies, for Tolkien purports to be reproducing true history herein.